Monday, January 19, 2009

Buffy Retrospective: "The Puppet Show"

Xander, Willow, and Buffy perform a scene from Oedipus Rex"The Puppet Show" is one of my favourite little one-shot episodes with no overarching plot development. This fondness is due in large part to Buffy, Xander, and Willow's performance of a scene from Oedipus Rex during the closing credits. Cordelia also has some funny bits in this episode, not the least of which is her performance of "Greatest Love of All".

Also in this episode, we meet Principal Snyder who has it out for all the students, but focuses particular attention on Buffy, Xander, and Willow. It would be easy to hate Principal Snyder if he weren't so funny. While he attributes Principal Flutie's being eaten to his "wolly-headed, liberal thinking", we all know now that one's approach to education does not determine whether one will be eaten.
Favourite Quote: "I don't get it. What is it, avant-garde?" -Principal Snyder reacting to the scene on stage when the curtain opens at the talent show

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Buffy Retrospective: "I Robot, You Jane"

In 1997, a "the Internet is dangerous" episode was par for the course. Teen magazines were full of warnings that you never really know who you're talking to online, so it would have been hard to find something innovative in such a story, but "I Robot, You Jane" pulls it off. Willow is our vulnerable teenager who becomes the victim of an Internet predator, but in a story that could only work in the Buffyverse, the predator is a demon that she scanned from a book into a computer and onto the Web. Like many of the morals conveyed in Buffy, the message is obvious, but it gets presented in a much more entertaining way.
The episode also raises the epic battle of books vs. computers. Perhaps because I am of an age where I clearly remember not knowing that the Internet existed or how to work a computer, I am of the mind that it is important to strike a balance between our reliance on print and digital information. Jenny Calendar's sheer coolness gives points to the techies, but I feel much the same way as Giles does with regard to the tangible experience of acquiring knowledge and the distinct lack of anything one could identify as "computer smell".
Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer [...] has no texture, no context. It's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be smelly. -Giles
The writers don't come down on one side or the other of this debate by making it clear that while modern technology is dangerous (demon in computer could access launch codes for nuclear missiles), so are the old ways (demon wouldn't have been in computer if he hadn't been put in the book in the first place). We also see the two elements working together when Giles and Jenny bind Moloch over the Internet using the original incantation.

I was 12 years old when this episode first aired. It makes me sad that a 12 year old watching the show today (who, frighteningly, would have been born the same year this episode aired) might not understand why Willow's phone line not ringing busy was an indication that she wasn't online and will wonder why the webcam feed is so pixelated. The concerns Giles expresses are even more of an issue today, with the advent of high-speed Internet, than they were in 1997. When I was 12, it still took work to find what you were looking for on the Internet and you had to wait, sometimes for more than a couple of minutes, for a page to load, and even longer for some things to download. Though my memories of my early days on the Internet may not have any olfactory associations, I can recall the sound of a dial-up modem and the way it felt to anxiously watch as images slowly loaded onto my monitor (often such images were Buffy publicity photos). In those days connecting to the Web meant you had to essentially disconnect your telephone, choosing one method of communication over another, and your computer had to be physically connected to the phone line. By that same token, you knew that anyone you were talking to online was also sitting at home or at the library on their computer, so there was an element of shared experience. Today, we can be "jacked in" almost anywhere and the Internet is somehow becoming even less tangible than it may once have been as touch-screen technology eliminates the need even for keyboards.

As much as I appreciate the wi-fi connection on my iPod Touch, I, like Giles, will always prefer the smell of a musty book.

Favourite Quotes:

Buffy: I mean, what if you guys get really, really intense, and then you find out that he has...a hairy back?
Willow: Well, no. He doesn't talk like somebody who would have a hairy back.

Xander: Sure he says he's a high school student, but I could say I'm a high school student.
Buffy: You are.
Xander: Okay, but I could also say that I'm an elderly Dutch woman. Get me? I mean, who's to say I'm not if I'm in the elderly Dutch chat room.

Jenny: You're here again? You kids really dig the library, don't you?
Buffy: We're literary.
Xander: To read makes our speaking English good.

Buffy Retrospective: "Angel"

Young and Handsome Forever

"Angel" does a lot of work in establishing some of the vampire mythology that is unique to Buffy. We learn that in the Buffyverse, when someone is turned into a vampire, the demon takes the body, but doesn't get the soul. Angel explains that the restoration of his soul is what distinguishes him from other vampires. This episode also establishes the connection between Darla and Angel, which is explored further in subsequent episodes despite Darla's dusting.

The obvious complications inherent in the Slayer falling in love with a vampire of course mean that there's no way Buffy and Angel will actually be able to "walk away from this" as they resolve to do at the end of the episode. As we all now know, Buffy and Angel's relationship is the epic love story of the series. It's also one of the main reasons I became hooked on the show, since, as I mentioned in my introduction, I watched "Becoming" on a loop the whole summer after it aired.

The obvious disadvantage of having characters who don't age is that the actors who play them do have a tendency to change in appearance. We encounter the same problem with Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation and subsequent films. Contrast Angel in Season 2 of Buffy to Angel in Season 5 of Angel.Angel still handsome, but less young
Source: ChosenTwo
Still handsome, of course, but obviously a few years older.

Favourite Quote: "This is exactly what happens when you sign these free trade agreements!" -Cordelia (This episode isn't big on laughs, but Cordelia's sighting of a classmate wearing a knock of of her one-of-a-kind Todd Oldham is vintage Cordy.)

Buffy Retrospective: "The Pack"

Herbert the RazorbackThis is an episode that I admittedly have not watched more than a couple of times, mainly because I wasn't allowed to watch the show until Season 2, and because it was not one of the six episodes included in the Season 1 VHS box set I subsequently acquired. Also, I don't like Xander when he's a meany, especially when he's being mean to Willow (when they are mean together in "Dopplegangland" is a whole other story, though). The episode does have a few things going for it: Herbert the Razorback piglet is adorable. Poor little guy left us too early, as did Principal Flutie (Ken Lerner), but his departure makes way for the delightful Armin Shimerman as Principal Snyder. Also, I love the gym teacher, Coach Herrold, from his over-simplified explanation of the rules of dodgeball ("You dodge.") to his reaction to the cut-throat behaviour of Xander and his new friends ("God this game is brutal. I love it.")

Sunnydale High Facutly Death Count:2 (Principal Flutie)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Buffy Retrospective: "Never Kill A Boy On The First Date"

"If the apocalypse comes, beep me."

Buffy has a beeper! I don't recall the beeper ever being put to use, but its appearance does place the show in a very particular time in history. I have found it interesting that there was always a distinct lack of cellular phones on Buffy, even in the later seasons by which time most people were carrying them. Buffy gives Dawn a cell phone at the beginning of Season 7, but it is rare that we ever see someone using one.

Not A Workable Thing

This episode continues to explore Buffy's efforts to carry on a normal life, this time by going on a date rather than cheerleading. While the cheerleading thing didn't work out because Buffy didn't make the team, she comes to the realization on her own that she can't date Owen because she would be putting his life in danger on a regular basis.

Random Observation: Giles mentions that his father and grandmother were both Watchers before him. I appreciate the passing mention that the Watcher's aren't an old boys club like one might expect of such an group. We eventually meet some female members of the Watcher's Council.

Favourite Quote: "I had very definite plans about my future. I was going to be a fighter pilot...or possibly a grocer." -Giles

Buffy Retrospective: "Teacher's Pet"

Demon Magnet

Xander's involvement with Miss French marks the beginning of his habit of being attracted to women who aren't quite human, which was always amusing. As far as Miss French is concerned, who can blame the guy? Giles said it best: "She's a common, extremely well-proportioned way."

Better With Age

The transition effect sort of sucks when the well-proportioned Miss French takes on her mantis form. As time went on, the CGI on the show improved significantly, probably due to a combination of bigger budgets and technological advancements.

The final shot in this episode is of some mantis eggs tucked away and hatching in Dr. Gregory's closet. Happily, the writers eventually dropped the rather lame "dun dun dun" endings like this one. This is another example of where the show was still finding a healthy balance of camp.

Random Observation: Some might say Willow's plaid pants should be on the list of wardrobe mistakes, but as someone who wore plaid pants in high school, I have a soft spot for them.

Sunnydale High Faculty Death Count: 1 (Dr. Gregory)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Buffy Retrospective: "Witch"

This episode does a good job of expanding on three important features of the show that are touched on in the premiere:

Buffy's ongoing quest to be a normal girl: Upon her arrival in Sunnydale, Buffy is intent on no longer performing her Slayerly duties. When it quickly becomes apparent that this isn't in the cards (though this won't be the last time she tries to quit), she becomes resigned to the fact to some extent, but is determined not to let her destiny get in the way of her having a normal high school experience. We witness her struggle with this for a great deal of the series, but most notably during high school. In fact, by the time Season 6 rolls around, Buffy isn't able to deal with the "normal" parts of her life, though there are extenuating circumstances in Season 6.

Not just vampires: At the end of "The Harvest", Giles informs the gang that the next threat they face could be something other than vampires, and sure enough, along comes Katherine Madison followed by a slew of different baddies. The villains become more sophisticated as the show progresses, as we see early on that the show was working on finding its footing in creating its own unique mythology without abandoning the sometimes cheesy bits of the horror tradition that viewers were used to. In this episode the witchcraft elements are rather simplistic and stereotypical compared to what we see in later seasons, and Giles' knowledge of witchcraft seems rather rudimentary despite what we learn in Season 2 about his past.

Love Hurts: The Buffy-Xander-Willow triangle is established from the get-go; the dynamic is made quite clear in "Witch". Of course, things get much more complicated as time goes on and more characters are introduced (Angel, Cordelia and Oz, for starters). As I watch, I'm working on an L Word-style chart of how all the characters are connected romantically.

Humble Geek-Infested Roots

Like Darla and Harmony, Amy Madison turns out to be a semi-recurring character. In fact, she appears in every season except Season 5 (though her appearance in "Something Blue" lasts mere seconds). Her part in Season 8 is still playing itself out, but it looks like she is going to be a key baddy this time around. I'd like to do a comparison of Amy and Willow's forays into dark magicks once I have reviewed Amy's episodes.
Sources: mouthfullofdust; Dark Horse Comics

Random Observations:
  • Why does her inability to see cause Cordelia to drive with excessive speed?
  • Continuity: Buffy casually mentions being a vampire slayer to her mother at breakfast, and Joyce's reaction is simply, "Buffy are you feeling well?" This is inconsistent with what we learn much later in "Normal Again" (Season 6) - Buffy's parents sent her to a mental institution when she first started slaying. Had this been a part of her story all along, Joyce would have likely reacted differently to the reference.
  • A positive bit of continuity is the blackness in Katherine's eyes when she casts her final spell, which remained a visual cue to the viewer that the individual was using dark magic.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Buffy Retrospective: "Welcome to the Hellmouth" & "The Harvest"

The Good Ol' Days

One of the first things the viewer will notice when watching earlier episodes of Buffy are the regrettable clothing choices people made in the mid-late 1990s. Low points in the premiere include Xander's mushroom shirt. I will make an effort to highlight glaring wardrobe errors along with some of the more favourable choices made over the years. I'm a big fan of the Master's leather jacket; it's so well tailored.

Xander in his ugly green mushroom shirt
Source: mouthfullofdust
You'll also notice some big honkin' computers. Hacking was deemed to be pretty cool at the time, and Willow's computer geek status came in handy for the first few years of the show until she began to rely more heavily on magic and until the general public realized that most of the stuff she was doing was pretty unrealistic. While sci-fi/fantasy viewers can suspend their disbelief to a great extent, but this proves more difficult when characters in a sci-fi show are doing something that happens in the real world. I would argue that because Willow's hacking wasn't unrealistic in a supernatural way, it couldn't really be sustained as a plot device to the extent it was relied on in early stories.

Watching Seasons 1-3 make me miss the library. I think it's safe to say the Sunnydale High Library is my favourite recurring set of the series. I find books and wooden furniture very comforting, so the library has particular appeal for this reason. The fact that nary a student outside the Scooby Gang ever set foot in the place was not only convenient for the characters, but served as a testament to society's increasing neglect of the printed word.

Buffy in the Sunnydale High Library
Source: Buffyverse Wiki

Humble Geek-Infested Roots

It's particularly interesting to consider how the characters changed over the course of the series, in terms of both personality and physical appearance. Buffy matures and I think she gets funnier; Xander was once a scrawny teenager; Willow goes through the most drastic change in wardrobe to coincide with increased self-esteem; and Giles becomes less stuffy and loses the tweed.

Buffy has a long history of bringing back characters who don't necessarily seem all that significant on their first appearance. A couple of them are introduced in the premiere. With the way Darla runs off from a little splash of holy water, few could anticipate how important her character would become, particularly during her arc on Angel. Harmony, who comes across as just one of Cordelia's hangers-on, also makes the move to LA to provide a substantial amount of comic relief on Angel. Most recently, Harmony appears in Issue 21 of Season 8.

Harmony Kendall in Season 1 and Season 8
Sources: mouthfullofdust; Dark Horse Comics

Random Observations:
  • I'm so glad they eventually had Anthony Stewart Head record the little "In every generation..." blurb at the beginning of the episodes. The original guy's voice is weird and does not suit the show.
  • You may recognize the guy Darla kills in the teaser. He's Carmine Giovinazzo and he plays Danny Messer on CSY: New York now.
  • Nerf Herder's theme music makes me happy to this day, as does the opening credits sequence.
  • Angel was sort of a douche with his whole "mysterious stranger" schtick
  • Who is cuter than Alyson Hannigan? Nobody, that's who.
  • Cordelia is probably the funniest part of this episode. Her delivery is spot on.
  • Though we grew accustomed to the vampires bursting into dust when killed, it really added a lot visually. Watching people collapse is really boring in comparison. For examples, see the movie.

Favourite Quote: "Excuse me, I have to call everyone I've ever met right now." -Cordelia

End of the World Prevention Tally: 1 (I'd say preventing the Harvest counts since it would have inevitably lead to the Master opening the Hellmouth)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Buffy Retrospective

Last weekend, when I should have been getting a head start on my readings for my final semester of law school, I fell into an unplanned marathon of Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I dreamed up a great tool of procrastination for myself. I am going to blog a full retrospective viewing of the series. Sounds like a daunting task, but I have already spent an excessive amount of time thinking about the show, and it's not as if I'll be viewing any unfamiliar material. I have set blogging goals for myself in the past, and I don't think I have achieved any of them to date, but I think my excessive dedication to Buffy will get me through. (If anyone questions my dedication to the show, I once wrote a blog defending Dawn after she was included on a list of the most annoying characters on television, and I stand by what I said. If that's not dedication to the series, I don't know what is.)

By way of introduction, let me share a few words about how my relationship with Buffy (and thus the cult of Joss Whedon) began. In 1992, at the tender age of 7 or 8, I rented Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yes, the movie. I recall enjoying the movie. Of course, I had no idea what was to come, but the film somehow stuck with me because when I got word of the series, I knew, before anyone told me, that it was based on the film and I wanted very much to watch it, though I didn't know how different from the film the series would prove to be.

Buffy premiered on the WB Network on March 10, 1997. However, I didn't see an episode until a few weeks into Season 2 because my mother, under the mistaken belief that the show was too violent and scary for an impressionable youth such as myself, didn't let me watch it (YTV was airing the show in Canada at this stage). I managed to sneak a few episodes and by the time the Season 2 finale rolled around, I somehow convinced my mother that the show was not going to scar me. I taped "Go Fish" and "Becoming" and proceeded to watch them almost every day over the course of the summer of 1998. I've had a pretty serious addiction every since. I started taping every episode and watching them repeatedly, and managed to get a few friends watching, as well. I also started collecting various forms of Buffy memorabilia, particularly comics, action figures, and books. The collection may warrant a special post someday. Since the series finale in 2003, I have continued to watch episodes on a regular basis and am enjoying Season 8, which is being conveyed in the form of a comic published by Dark Horse and produced by Joss.

So, here is the plan going forward. I am not going to follow any particular format in my entries, which will allow me to tailor each entry to the particular episode. In the interest of time and because there are thorough recaps available elsewhere online (my personal favourite site for all things Buffy is Much Ado About Buffy the Vampire Slayer), I'm not going to get into episode and storyline recaps to any great degree. Rather, my attention will be focused on what I can recall of my impressions of the episode when it first aired, how my perspective on the episode has changed in relation to subsequent episodes and after repeated viewing, and my favourite tidbits from each episode. I'm also going to work on compiling a few different lists because lists are fun.

With that, let's get on with the show!